A Wine Merchant's Introduction to Wine
Updated: Aug 16, 2020
I went into the wine trade immediately after completing my degree in Biology at Sussex in 1979. Academically I had not been a model student and at my final viva exam the panel asked me only one question – “what did I intend to do next”? When I explained I had a job lined up in the wine trade the tension in the room evaporated with a collective sigh of relief. They were rid of me and the interview continued in a most genial manner as they awarded me the (higher) grade of 2:2 so long as it was not used to try and continue my “studies”. Two weeks later I started my new career a hundred yards up the road from the old Billingsgate Fish Market in the City of London, at the firm of Russell & McIver (Established 1865), The Rectory, St Mary at Hill, London EC3.
It was a challenging day. For a start I knew absolutely nothing about wine and secondly, I could not type. Today with mobile phones and laptops everyone can type but back then very few students could. My job included “raising invoices” on a manual typewriter, the top copy of which had to be perfect enough to be placed in an envelope to be sent to the customer. Why did one raise them I wondered? I knew nothing about basic business either. It was painfully slow going and the dreariness only interrupted by the phone with customers placing orders. They ordered wines I had never heard of, that I couldn’t pronounce let alone spell. I share this with you because there is an implied stigma in not knowing anything about wine and that anyone who discusses it, is in some way sneering down their noses at you whilst doing so. Ultimately we all start from a position of ignorance but this should never deter anyone from finding out more. The old adage rattled out in those days …. “I don’t know much about wine but I know what I like” was quite clearly a fib. People did not know what they liked because they hadn’t tried anything much beyond what was sold in off licences and most of that was, by today’s standards, appalling. Now this was good news! It meant that with minimal study and parents prepared to wield a corkscrew at the drop of a hat one could quickly acquire the necessary vocabulary to pass oneself off as a bit of a buff. The more you taste, the more you learn but you must accept from the outset that the subject is, in fact, endless. Being a wine buff is only ever comparative; there is always someone who knows more than you do. Wine is like food; the more you cook and understand what is going on in the pan the better you become. You do not need to be Gordon Ramsay to appreciate and enjoy good food and the same is true of wine. Appreciating what is in the bottle and why it tastes the way it does, simply makes the experience better. Getting to know who made it makes drinking a bottle a bit like communing with an old friend and by that stage you are truly hooked. It is true you risk being considered a wine snob but it is a singularly British hang up. In wine producing countries there is no class distinction placed upon it. It is simply part of everyday life and knowing something about it is considered normal - perhaps even, street wise. These days wine is almost an everyday commodity and now that England is a serious wine producing country perhaps all the class sensitivity surrounding it will end.
In the old days you learnt about wine by studying the regions they came from. This was because in Europe – the Old World - wine was named after the place it came from rather than by its grape varietal. Today with the rise and rise of New World wines you do not need to know which grapes are grown where – the label tells you that and it is the grapes that are the fundamental building blocks that determine flavour. Understand the grapes and you are halfway there. Incidentally that mantra of knowing what one likes is still a lie to this day but for a different reason. Today there are literally hundreds of grape varietals on the supermarket shelves. At the last count, Italy alone boasted over 550 different varietals (it goes up every year as ancient little plots of vines are discovered). So, knowing what you like is more an admission that you simply play safe and buy the same wine each time you go shopping. Why do that when you have such an abundance of flavours and styles to discover? I would go out and buy the most unpronounceable, unusual wine you have never heard of. It will be half the price of a better-known wine and to have been selected in the first place it will, as likely as not, be twice as interesting as the Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay sitting alongside it on the shelf. Wine making is now exceptionally good around the world, so why not have fun and experiment?
The second concept you need to get your head round is that of “terroir”. We touched upon this discussing wine regions but let me explain terroir in terms of one grape varietal in one region. Let’s take Chardonnay which is now grown across the globe but whose home turf is the eastern side of France from Champagne country - north of Paris - way down south to Macon where the tiny hamlet of Chardonnay is found. In medieval times every village grew its own wine but as communication and trade improved only the most interesting wines remained in production. The best wine, from the best sites survived as the less good were pulled up. The wine regions of Europe literally evolved. Chardonnay produces its finest wine on limestone soil and there is chalk in Champagne. South of Paris there is another outcrop, this time of Kimmeridgian limestone named after the fossil rich bedrock found in Dorset. Surrounding the sleepy little village of Chablis are rolling hills of vines. The wine here is generally unoaked (as in Champagne) – in other words they are not aged in oak barrels. It is a very cool climate and the acidity running through the wines can be fierce. You need south facing slopes to achieve full ripeness and each vineyard has its own aspect which affects the character of the resultant wine. The seven “Grand Cru” sites are the steepest, warmest sites and produce the most powerful wine but you could argue that several of the neighbouring Premier Cru sites offer more interesting, racier styles of wine. I purchase Montée de Tonnerre 1er Cru every year in preference to the more expensive Grand Cru vineyards because, not only is it half the price, it is also (for my taste) more interesting. If you were to use oak here (and some people do) you would mask some of those subtle differences. Heading south you face an hour and half drive with no vines before reaching the Cote d’Or, the epicentre of Burgundy’s wine production. Once again there is limestone but the climate is more benign and the wine more full bodied. The wines here can carry the oak aging process better; the vanilla and toasted buttery richness it imparts can be integrated seamlessly into the resultant wine. Here the wines are centred round the famous villages of Puligny, Chassagne and Meursault. The area is tiny and the whole world clamours for allocations so prices can also be eye wateringly high. There are ways round this but that is for another blog. Finally, if you go still further south you reach the abundant vineyards of the Maconnais. There is a lot of wine produced here and ripeness is not a problem but the mineral core found in the Cote D’Or wines is absent and the acidity, so prevalent in Chablis, can be lacking. Whilst oak is sometimes used here it can once again overwhelm the softer, plumper wine.
All the wines mentioned are made from Chardonnay and each is distinctive and individual just like the people who make them. They too leave their mark on the wine. When did they pick the grapes? How much oak did they use – was it old or new? How hard do they prune and accordingly what yields do they take from their land? So, not only is each vineyard unique in character (geology, aspect) so is the grower. My Chablis (Montée de Tonnerre) is made by Guillaume at Domaine Louis Michel but there are many other growers with plots in this vineyard and each makes a slightly different wine. So, it’s simple – white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. But look a bit deeper and it becomes subtly more complicated and nuanced. Finally, it is when it gets personal that it really starts getting interesting. Who is king pin (or queen bee!) in a given area and who is the new kid on the block challenging for the crown. Find the latter and you have probably got yourself a bargain.
Wine is a bit like art. You can look at a painting and think “wow, I like that” and leave it at that. Alternatively, you can drill down a bit deeper and find out more about what is going on in the painter’s mind and the painting then starts to reveal further secrets. There is the commercially produced art you can buy at B & Q for next to nothing (that’s the supermarket “best buys”) and there is better crafted more original work at higher prices hanging in art studios (that’s your wine shop). The rarer and finer the work, the more expensive it becomes and so it is with wine too. However, there is plenty of affordable well-made wine out there. You only need to trade up a tad to get something infinitely more interesting in your glass. The French refer to this as “rapport qualité prix” where quality and value meet.
Contrary to popular belief you do not need to spend a lot of money to find interesting wine and the most expensive bottle is not always the best as my Chablis example illustrates. If anyone wants me to expand on these thoughts in the future let me know.
Brough was co-owner of wine merchants O.W. Loeb until selling his interest in the company in 2014